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Commentary: Keep rural post offices open

Post offices in Pine Point (Ponsford) and Naytauwaush are scheduled for closure this year as a result of federal budget cuts - but deserve a look over, for a variety of reasons.

The U.S. Postal Service lost $8.5 billion last year, which brings it into a focus in a time of budget cutting. However, the question may be if the USPS is a business or a service in this country. Post office closures in the Dakotas and Minnesota will affect many communities, but the White Earth reservation villages, and villages of Squaw Lake, Ponemah, Brookston in Minnesota, and Manderson Wounded Knee and Wakpala (South Dakota) as well as Mandaree in North Dakota will all mean hardships for a largely Native community.

Most of the post office closures are in the rural areas where not only a large native community remains, but as well an area with many rural elderly people.

Interestingly enough, the postal service would seem to be a basic foundation of America, and yet, is treated as a business. The budget savings for the post office closures are estimated to be at around $1 billion. Just to use a comparison, the Troubled Asset Relief Program cost American tax payers $500 billion in one program, ended up to $l.2 trillion in total. That is why this post office penny pinching seems particularly ironic.

These post offices serve a largely rural poor and minority population. While email and the internet are seen as the answer for many, both rural elderly and a native families by and large do not have internet access.

The 500 plus residents of Ponsford and the 600 plus residents of Naytauwash already face a number of challenges and obstacles in keeping income, jobs and within the confines of the justice system. Tribal residents on the reservation and in these villages are generally low income. There are more children living below the poverty level in these communities than elsewhere in Becker and Mahnomen Counties, and there are a higher proportion of people without vehicles or valid drivers licenses. A lot of people with multiple families use the same post office box.

Simply stated, it is a lot of work or "white paper" to be poor in this country. Not only record keeping, but attempting to get a job and then making sure that you have all the employment requirements filed, and are able to respond to prospective employers requires a valid postal address. Also, voting requires a valid postal address. This would seem to be rather easy to make happen - but there are 220 mail boxes in Pine Point and in Naytauwash, and those are held by local people who need to receive mail, and be able to correspond with agencies, whether social services, justice department or energy assistance. Losing those post offices will be a burden to these people.

Proposals to replace the post office with a village mailbox are considered by many in Ponsford to put the mail at risk of vandalism, other proposals to put the post offices in rural stores may have some benefit.

Why is this especially discriminatory? The rural poor are already facing challenges as winter comes. In addition, if half the people in both of these communities are below the poverty level that means a number of tangible necessities are unavailable. Many residents do not have a vehicle that works. Many residents do not have a valid drivers license (often because they lose the license for no proof of insurance, which in a high poverty situation, is more common). This means, you cannot drive places to pick up your mail, and you have a much harder time, and spend more time trying to meet the requirements necessary to provide food to your family.

People cannot drive elsewhere for mail and more mail will not be delivered. I used to believe that through wind, snow, sleet or rain, the mail would be delivered. I even watched that Kevin Costner movie, "The Postman," more than once, and liked it.

The rural post offices should be kept. If the Bank of Scotland could get $84 billion in a federal bail out in 2008 (Bank of America got a slim $91.4 billion), it would seem that the U.S. Postal Service might deserve more of a break. The rural post office closures will save $ l billion, while $3 billion is saved by cutting Saturday services. Layoffs in the largely rural post office closed will result in around 4,000 jobs lost. Post office closure comments are being taken by the Post Office Review Coordinator, PO Box 7500, Sioux Falls, SD 57117, or PO Review Coordinator, 1762 l60th Ave. S., Comstock, MN 56525.

Winona LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities. She is also the Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a reservation based non-profit devoted to restoring the land-base and culture of the White Earth Anishinaabeg.